Preparedness & Recovery

Dispatchers Share Stories of Triumph, Frustration

'These girls were screaming that there was a bear in their attic trying to get out. They said [the bear's] toes were sticking out from under the door.'

by David Paulk, Dover Post, Del. / April 18, 2017
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(TNS) - Valerie Springer still remembers the call about a bear in the house.

"These girls were screaming that there was a bear in their attic trying to get out," Springer said. "They said [the bear's] toes were sticking out from under the door."

It turned out to be a baby raccoon.

This was just one of the calls Springer has handled as a police dispatcher.

Springer has been a dispatcher for the Milford Police Department for 25 years. In addition to being a dispatcher, she's an emergency medical technician in Milton.

The thrill of being the first point of contact in an emergency has kept her in the profession.

Last week, dispatchers' contributions to law enforcement were recognized across the nation during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

The heard, but unseen, workers are crucial in making sure firemen, police officers, EMTs and other first responders get to their destination.

In 2016 the Milford Police Department took 14,502 calls ranging from burglaries to domestic situations and gunshot reports.

No matter the situation they are trained to stay calm. This requirement alone means everyone doesn't make it as a dispatcher.

Carrie Joles has been a dispatcher for eight years. She said the mental strain often drives people away.

"People don't quite realize the exact multitasking skills you have to have in order to do this job," Joles said. "There are a lot of people who come in here thinking it's a simple clerical job and it is not."

Dan Washinski joined the dispatch unit after his firefighting days ended when he injured his back. He's been there for two years, but was on the verge of quitting himself.

"You don't have to physically exert yourself," he said. "Mentally this is 10 times more than I thought it was going to be."

Oftentimes, the toughest part about being a dispatcher is gathering all the information first responders might need to do their job.

"When you dial 911 you are looking for a fire truck, EMS or police officer," Joles said. "But you can't get them without us."

Joles said information is crucial, especially in domestic situations. Before the officer arrives at the scene, dispatchers have researched prior convictions, no contact orders or anything in the records that could pose a threat to residents or officers.

"If you're in a domestic situation things could escalate extremely fast," Joles said.

Changes in the roster of businesses is a challenge.

In Milford, "a lot of new businesses are coming, which is great for the community," Joles said. "But sometimes it can fall back on you. If you don't know about a new business in town you're not familiar with it if when someone calls."

Joles said an example is Milford's two Dollar Trees. "If someone calls and says 'I'm in front of Dollar Tree' you have to ask, 'which one?'"

David Taulbee has been on both sides. He started as a dispatcher in 1987 until he graduated from the police academy in 1989. He spent 20 years as a police officer until he returned to dispatching.

"I think we're forgotten about," he said. "But we are the first line of defense."

According to Taulbee, 95 percent of callers think they are talking to a police officer when they call.

While they don't wear their credentials like a police officer or fireman, their responsibilities are just as important.

In addition to their task as gatekeepers in emergency situations, they take utility payments, listen to residents who come to the station and handle any city-related matters that occur after Milford's office closes.

Scott Pavlak, a part-time dispatcher who also works as a dispatcher in New Jersey, said there's never a dull moment.

He remembers a time, not too long after Sept. 11, when someone called to report a terrorist sighting.

The caller said: "This guy is driving down the street and he has a towel on his head. He might be Taliban."

Pavlak soon realized the man had just finished working out and was no threat.

"There is an old cliché among dispatchers," he said. "By the end of the day you're like, 'God I never thought this one would happen, nothing can ever top this.' You come in the next day and something tops it."

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